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Wendy Cukier, Founder and Academic Director of the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University
Wendy Cukier
Founder & Academic Director - Diversity Institute, Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University

Skills: The Currency of the 21st Century

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What does the future hold for work? What skills will be in demand? In recent years, the business press has been saturated with apocalyptic visions of the disruption posed by technology, a view accelerated by a 2013 report by Benedikt and Osborne, which suggested that at some point between 2023 and 2033, 47% of jobs in the U.S. would become vulnerable to automation. “Could be automated” morphed into “would be automated” and pundits claimed 42% of Canadian jobs (7.5 million) were at risk — a threat that reverberated in policy echo chambers.

Far fewer focused attention on the effects of other global trends on the economy – the impact of massive environmental degradation, climate change or major shifts in energy consumption. Some directed attention to the aging population and the impacts it would have on the labour market, increasing dependence on immigration for example, and the crushing burden it would present to the health care system, gobbling up even more public resources.

Outside of public health circles, a pandemic was not on the radar for most of us. In the early days we jokingly referenced COVID-19 as the “zombie apocalypse,” never imagining the scale of disruption it would reap, and certainly not considering it in the economic projections of government or corporations. Once again, science fiction appears to have anticipated potential futures better than most of the futurists and pundits who were obsessing about AI, blockchain and security while another kind of virus was the hidden threat.

“How can we plan for a constantly changing future we cannot predict? We probably can’t. We can plan for change itself and build capacity for it.”

How can we plan for a constantly changing future we cannot predict? We probably can’t. We can plan for change itself and build capacity for it. We can promote adaptability and resilience in our institutions, our organizations and our people, increasing the likelihood that they will be able to respond quickly to unanticipated changes. We can do a better job of coordinating and sharing across systems instead of reinventing the wheel or failing to learn from failure and replicating approaches that simply do not work.

Currently we are caught in the eternal struggle between supply and demand in the efforts to track and predict labour market information and projections. Employers say there are shortages — yet the under-employment of women and highly skilled immigrants says something else. And in spite of the best of intentions, it’s clear that there are challenges on both sides of the market: the nature of skills and tools is constantly evolving and the purveyors of skills — post-secondary institutions and community employment organizations — while important, have historically been slow to anticipate changes. We have talked about skills gaps for more than 20 years but do not seem to be narrowing them. We have talked about employers screaming for engineers while 40% of newcomer engineers are under-employed.

“Employers say there are shortages — yet the under-employment of women and highly skilled immigrants says something else.”

What are some of the obvious trends? There is no sign of abatement in the demand for digital skills at all levels and across all sectors, although the specific tools (i.e. programming languages, applications) in demand will change. In spite of the preoccupation with increasing skills in coding, one of the major effects of AI and machine learning are “low code-no code” environments. Increasingly, it is important to ensure that in addition to basic digital literacy, as well as deep technology skills, we need people who can match technology to organizational needs to support digital transformation. Additionally, while there are multiple pathways to “digital careers,” accessing them requires innovation in skills development and in approaches to defining these roles. And, of course, flexible models for reskilling and upskilling are critically important because they harness partnerships among employers, training organizations, and post-secondary institutions, using new methods and being able to adapt in near-real time to merging needs.

“The so-called “soft” skills are actually hard. There has been a resurgence in preoccupation with the importance of communication skills, interpersonal skills, and so-called “emotional intelligence,” domains historically associated with social sciences and humanities.”

Again, a theme which has ebbed and flowed over the years is that the so-called “soft” skills are actually hard. There has been a resurgence in preoccupation with the importance of communication skills, interpersonal skills, and so-called “emotional intelligence,” domains historically associated with social sciences and humanities. Indeed, after years of fetishizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), there has been a resurgence of advocates for humanities and social sciences among more than the usual suspects — including global tech leader Microsoft, which claims that “lessons from a liberal arts education are necessary for the proper development of AI.” There are translation issues – writing a 30-page essay requires different techniques than writing a blog or a social media post. More and more post-secondary institutions are moving to define competencies more clearly and new innovative “bridging programs” and university adjacent programs are emerging to help manage the transition from school to work, fuelled by significant government investments in work integrated learning.

“In spite of more than 40 years of talk about distance learning, teleducation and e-learning, universities have been slow to adopt change.”

And regardless of the content of the skills we need to survive, the one contribution COVID-19 has made has been the acceleration of adoption of new technologies to support remote work, service delivery, health care, and education and training. In spite of more than 40 years of talk about distance learning, teleducation and e-learning, universities have been “bad slow” to adopt change.

The only constant is change itself and while keeping abreast of trends can help, we have seen that what is even more critical is flexibility and the ability to pivot quickly. Embracing lifelong learning is key. What jobs will be secure and rewarding? Again, it is hard to say for sure but if we follow the trend lines, technology, environment, and health care would seem to be safe bets. So, too, is ensuring more people have the entrepreneurial knowledge, skills and aptitudes needed to create their own jobs.

“We need much better definition, communication and translation of skills and competencies, tools and techniques to ensure job seekers, employees, employers and service providers have a shared understanding of skills – the currency of the 21st Century – and how to access and apply them.”

What skills will we need? The Essential Skills Framework is currently being updated but has served us well. It provides an internationally recognized set of skills – literacy, numeracy, digital skills, interpersonal skills, lifelong learning and more – which traverse occupations and industries. Additional focus on developing shared definitions, methods of measuring and effective approaches to developing in-demand occupational skills and tools will help us better match supply and demand and also map pathways forward. We need much better definition, communication and translation of skills and competencies, tools and techniques to ensure job seekers, employees, employers and service providers have a shared understanding of skills – the currency of the 21st Century – and how to access and apply them.

Wendy Cukier, Academic Director of the Diversity Institute at Ryerson university
Wendy Cukier
Founder & Academic Director - Diversity Institute, Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University

Bio: Dr. Wendy Cukier is the Founder & Academic Director of the Diversity Institute and Professor of Entrepreneurship Strategy at Ryerson University. She is a leading expert in disruptive technologies, innovation processes and diversity and a co-author of “Innovation Nation: Canadian Leadership from Java to Jurassic Park.” Wendy founded the Diversity institute in 1999 to promote the participation and advancement of underrepresented groups in Canada.

Organization Profile: The Diversity Institute at Ryerson University promotes diversity and inclusion as a key to Canada’s competitiveness. The institute has developed the Newcomer Entrepreneurship Hub, has championed legislative changes and has consulted with Canadian companies to help them harness the potential of workforce inclusion. The Diversity Institute is leading the Government of Canada’s Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub and is a partner in the Future Skills Centre.